What does the future of mankind look like? Is it bright? That’s the impression one gets from reading Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think.
The book argues that advances in technology will solve all of our problems. Food, water, energy, medicine — our capabilities have been rapidly improving on all of these fronts for decades and we’re on pace to advance even faster in coming years. In fact, according to the book, the only reason we don’t see how terrific our future will be is because of our cognitive biases towards pessimism and gloom. It notes,
…Our brain’s filtering architecture is pessimistic by design…(and) good news is drowned out, because it’s in the media’s best interest to overemphasize the bad.
Therefore we tend to ignore the advances in robotics, nanotechnology, computers, genetically engineered crops, vertical farming, cultured meats, smart grids, and innumerable other technological advances that have put us on the cusp of taking a great leap forward as a species.
This isn’t just hot air either. The book goes into detail about the extraordinary breakthroughs that we’re approaching: algae that can produce thirty times more energy than conventional biofuels per acre, computer assisted irrigation that will dramatically reduce the water usage needed for farming, autonomous cars that will reduce commute times and almost eliminate accidents, human body parts that can be grown as replacements for our worn out organs, and diagnostic advances that will allow thousands of dollars’ worth of medical tests to be done for pennies. These are exciting ideas that have the potential to uplift the lives of human beings all across the globe.
On the other hand, X-Events: The Collapse of Everything offers a different take on the coming years — the challenge of complexity. From page 44:
The crunch comes when we recognize that societies must continually solve problems in order to keep growing. But the solution to these problems requires ever more complex structures. Ultimately, a point is reached where all the resources of the society are consumed just in maintaining the system at its current level. At this point, the society is experiencing a complexity overload; no further degrees of freedom exist for coping with new problems. When the next problem appears, the system cannot accommodate it by adding more complexity. So it collapses quickly through an X-event that rapidly reduces the complexity overload.
Here’s another way to think of it. Once, almost everyone grew his own food. Now, however, you can buy a wider selection much more cheaply at your local supermarket. For that to happen a bewildering array of different options has to fall into place just so. We need farmers who can grow enough not just for themselves but also to feed legions of others. To grow their crops, they need seed, water, sunlight, good weather, energy to power the equipment, and ideally they need to keep bugs from eating their crops. Then, the food has to be picked and shipped either directly to the store or to other locations where it’s processed and turned into a meal. To make that happen, they need people and equipment to harvest the crops, gasoline to power the trucks, computers to alert everyone where the product needs to be shipped, etc. If for some reason waterlines failed and there was no gasoline to power the trucks or computers to organize the deliveries, the entire process would break down in short order and tens of millions of people would starve to death as a result. So, the system we have in place now is several orders of magnitude better than it was 100 years ago and it can sustain a much larger population, but the complexity involved means that if one crucial link in the chain breaks, the results will be catastrophic.
Of course, complex systems have multiple fail-safes built in to prevent this from happening. The problem with this is that at certain levels of complexity, the world becomes like an elaborate game of Mousetrap. Numerous complicated processes must work extremely well for the miracle of modern life to continue apace.
So what happens if Murphy’s Law rears its ugly head and some of the unlikely, but possible disasters on the horizon come to pass? What if the Internet, which was never designed to do what we use it for, is completely disabled by hackers? How about if the peak oil theorists finally turn out to be right and the price of gasoline doubles or triples worldwide? What would happen in the United States if nuclear bombs exploded in New York, D.C., and L.A. simultaneously? Or an EMP bomb fries every electronic circuit coast-to-coast? How about a naturally occurring global pandemic that kills billions? Keep in mind that we’re not even getting into the more exotic scenarios like intelligent robots or runaway nanobots that seem fantastical today, but should be much more plausible in 20 or 30 years.
Which of these two views is more plausible? Is abundance right around the corner or are we headed towards the collapse of everything? Well, that brings to mind an old Orson Welles quote,
If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.
At one time, the Roman Empire sat as the jewel of civilization. Founded in 625 BC, a city-state became a republic around 525 BC and made it almost 500 years before stumbling into dictatorship. Even afterwards, the empire soldiered on for another 500 years or so until the Western Empire fell in 476 AD. That’s the thing about history — it goes on for a long, long time. Time enough for all sorts of unlikely things to happen and, yes, as we learned from the Dark Ages after the fall of the Roman Empire, we can go backwards as a species.
Unfortunately, there is a lot of evidence to support the main contention behind X-Events: The Collapse of Everything. We just had a worldwide financial crash that was caused by governmental policies in the United States and spread across the world via derivatives few people understand. How many people truly grasped the size and scope of the risk we were taking? Very few. Additionally, Western democracies are running large, unsustainable deficits because they’re having terrible difficulty funding the enormous governments and social safety nets they’ve created over the last 50 years.
This is very problematic for the Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think view of the world because science itself has become much more complex. For the most part, we’ve moved on from one guy with a microscope making discoveries in his basement to large teams of scientists, working with millions of dollars worth of equipment, and spending untold sums to make advances. Debatably, even these moves forward are inferior to those we made in the earlier parts of the 20th century, as Mark Steyn ably explained in his book After America: Get Ready For Armageddon,
Picture a man of the late nineteenth century, perhaps your own great grandfather, sitting in an ordinary American home of 1890. And now pitch him forward in an H.G. Wells machine, not to our time, but about halfway — to that same ordinary American home, circa 1950.
Why, the poor gentleman of 1890 would be astonished. His old home is full of mechanical contraptions. There is a huge machine in the corner of the kitchen, full of food and keeping the milk fresh and cold! There is another shiny device whirring away and seemingly washing milady’s bloomers with no human assistance whatsoever! Even more amazingly, there is a full orchestra playing somewhere within his very house. No, wait, it’s coming from a tiny box on the countertop! The music is briefly disturbed by a low rumble from the front yard, and our time traveler glances through the window: A metal conveyance is coming up the street at an incredible speed — with not a horse in sight. … What marvels! In a mere sixty years!
But then he espies his Victorian time machine sitting invitingly in the corner or the parlor. Suppose he were to climb on and ride even farther into the future. After all, if this is what an ordinary American home looks like in 1950, he imagines the wonders he will see if he pushes on another six decades!
So on he gets, and sets the dial for our own time.
And when he dismounts he wonders if he’s made a mistake. Because aside from a few design adjustments, everything looks pretty much as it did in 1950: the layout of the kitchen, the washer, the telephone. … Oh, wait. It’s got buttons instead of a dial. And the station wagon in the front yard has dropped the woody look and seems boxier that it did. …. And the refrigerator has a magnet on it holding up an endless list from a municipal agency detailing what trash you have to put in which colored boxes on collection days. But other than that, and a few cosmetic changes, he might as well have stayed in 1950.
People may protest that this is too cynical of a read. After all, we have the Internet, artificial hearts, and microchips in the last fifty years. But where are the flying cars, holodecks, laser guns, cybernetic enhancements, and the universal free energy? You may laugh, but that’s the sort of revolutionary progress we’d need to see from 1960 to the present to compete with the sort of changes men like Einstein, Edison, Tesla, and Marconi managed to make possible in their time. Meanwhile, we’re no longer even capable of going back to the moon and getting the flag we put there in 1969.
So, is the ever-increasing complexity of modern society throwing it out of balance and leading to an almost inevitable course correction that will leave an ocean of misery and despair in its wake?
In fact, barring some sort of visionary scientific advance that makes money irrelevant, makes energy both bountiful and cheap, or allows us to make much better use of human potential, it seems very likely that humankind is going to be forced to stagnate or even take a step or two backwards after some horrible upheaval while we readjust to a less prosperous or, at a minimum, very different future than we expected. The good news on that front is that the wheels of history turn very slowly and whole generations of human beings can come and go before the world’s bike goes off a cliff. That gives our species a lot of time to prepare, a lot of time to make changes, and even the hope that any terrible crashes come after we’ve departed this world for greener pastures. In the end, all we can do is go forward the best we can and hope for the best. It’s what our species does.
See John Hawkins’ follow up: